Rudd's Tragic Legacy

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It was a day of thrills and spills and finally some tears, as Parliament got underway in earnest yesterday. The Coalition ruled, Labor opposed and Kevin Rudd left.

We may not have learned much that we did not already know, but for all that there were plenty of hints about the coming shape of policy and legislation under Tony Abbott. Taken together, the clues tell us that the new government will stick to its policy agenda of opposing climate action, gutting research, and cloaking the machinery of government in greater secrecy. Similarly, Labor's patchy performances in question time also tell us a little about how it plans to approach the thankless task of opposition.

Early on, the government's plans to start proceedings with carbon legislation repeal were derailed by some clever parliamentary tactics by Labor's Tony Burke, the new Manager of Opposition Business.

Burke tried to suspend standing orders to get Immigration Minister Scott Morrison to tell the Parliament exactly what has been going in the waters to our north. Predictably, that motion was defeated on party lines. During the fracas, Education Minister Christopher Pyne referred to Bill Shorten with the government's new favourite insult, “Electricity Bill”. Burke then moved a point of order, asking for Pyne to withdraw the insult.

While I think it's frankly silly, the new moniker has clearly been cooked up at Coalition HQ with a view to discrediting the new Opposition Leader (Andrew Bolt liked it so much he wrote a whole column about this devastating new tactic). On the face of it, name-calling is against the standing orders of the House – as even Tony Abbott has conceded.

But Bishop ruled the catcall in order, arguing it wasn't an insult, just a description. That's a pretty creative reading of the black letter of standing orders. More importantly, it's a signal that Bishop, like most speakers, will most lean to a government view. It was a poor start to her speakership.

Parliament is a kind of theatre, and for that reason performances are scrutinised, even if they mean little to policy outcomes. The government's performances were mostly assured. Abbott and his senior ministers looked comfortable, even happy, although there were some spiky moments from Scott Morrison. Labor's performances were uneven, with Burke the stand-out. Shorten looked flat and Tanya Plibersek looked nervous. Parliamentary Labor is going to need more energy from both if it is to convince true believers and fellow travellers it has a chance in 2016.

While the usual shenanigans in the House played out, serious legislation was also being introduced and voted on. For instance, the government decided to cut a cool half billion off the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, a cynical piece of policy vandalism that fits perfectly with the government's quixotic War On Warmism.

Even in the twisted terms of Greg Hunt's Direct Action, funding renewable energy makes a lot of sense, as it is consistent with the idea of a government spending money to reduce emissions. But logic matters little in the carbon debate, as we all know. So the cuts to ARENA give the government a “clean sweep” of carbon policy roll-back, with every significant federal climate change and energy agency either abolished or significantly weakened. 

While we're mentioning funding cuts, the government this morning moved to amend the Australian Research Council legislation, signalling that it will cut ARC funding from $884 million this year to $716 million in 2016. Under Labor, research enjoyed big increases. Now comes the pay-back from a Government that seems more anti-intellectual with each passing day.

Another straw in the wind this morning was the passing of a Senate resolution demanding more information from Morrison and the government be presented to the upper house. It will be interesting to see how the Government dodges that.

Parliamentary proceedings were over-shadowed by one big announcement that came late last night: Kevin Rudd's resignation.

It is of course far too early to sum up the achievements and failures of this complex and flawed politician in a few scattered paragraphs. The departure of the dominant figure of the past seven years of Australian politics will generate plenty of analysis – and some of it is already very good. Let me venture some initial thoughts here.

Rudd was always an outsider in his party, and will remain a polarising figure in left politics for a long time. A curious mix of rebel and centralist, policy nerd and baby kisser, ruthless opportunist and blubbering sentimentalist, Kevin Rudd was for a long time the most popular prime minister Australia has ever had.

Philosophically, he was also a weird hybrid, with bits of Catholic Laborite, progressive social democrat and Third Way moralist jostling for prominence in a confused and polyglot whole.

The qualities of his rise and fall are still hard to assess even now. At one point in 2008, he was polling in the 70s as preferred prime minister. Even as late as early 2010, many think that Labor could have comfortably fought and won a double dissolution election on the issue of climate change and carbon taxation.

But the razor-sharp intellect and strange popular magnetism he exerted were not, in the end, enough to compensate for the obvious weakness of his support base inside his own party. For all of his telegenic star qualities, Rudd showed an astonishing inability to face up to the realities of Labor politics.

Previous reformers such as Paul Keating, Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam were either factional leaders themselves, or clever manipulators of the factional power balance. Rudd preferred to present himself as an anti-politician, speaking over the head of his colleagues to the pragmatic middle classes that Labor had neglected for so long.

In policy, Rudd was far less effective than he should have been. His transcending achievement remains the stimulus package of late 2008, when he and Wayne Swan had the courage to listen to the best advice of Ken Henry and embark on a Keynesian spending program that saved hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Labor's debt and deficit became a potent weapon for the Coalition, but history will almost certainly laud Rudd for making the right call. A different government could have dithered, or capitulated to the austerity hawks. Instead, we invested much-needed billions in our primary schools and hospitals, ensuring Australia's economy remains the envy of the rich world.

It was that other big issue, carbon, carbon that eventually led to Rudd's destruction. He moved slowly and methodically on the issue in 2008 and 2009, distracted by a thousand other priorities, at a time when he should have seized the initiative. Political capital can never be hoarded, only spent. Labor under Rudd missed the opportunity to settle the carbon debate in its favour, once and for all.

This gave vested interests and the Liberal Party crucial time to marshal their forces against an issue they see as the largest threat facing the established capitalist order. By the time Julia Gillard moved to implement carbon pricing, climate had became a losing issue for Labor and progressives. It may be many years before the damage in undone.

Hence, while Rudd's frenetic popularity drive was hugely successful in the early years, in the long term it was no substitute for the internal support of his party. In the grand old Australian Labor Party, hatreds never die, which is why old friends and old allies are so important.

Rudd's political immaturity was on clear display on the morning after his deposal, when he sobbed away any legitimacy Julia Gillard may have hoped to bring to her historic appointment. He then compounded matters with a ruthless campaign of destabilisation throughout the rest of Gillard's reign. The result was utter chaos and division with the Labor Party, and, eventually, the election of Tony Abbott. By the end, Rudd was voted back to the prime ministership by a party that loathed him.

History will likely be unable to consider Kevin Rudd without also considering Julia Gillard, and it is a mark of this turbulent period that Gillard seems to be emerging as the true Labor hero, while Rudd never seems less popular with the left of politics.

Rudd's final months as returning Prime Minister may well have “saved the furniture”, as he claimed, but they will surely do little to burnish his legacy. The 2013 election campaign seemed to vindicate the claims of chaos and micro-management by his colleagues and ex-staffers that had first surfaced in 2010.

By the end of a shambolic campaign, marked by backflips and strange diversions on issues of minor significance (moving the naval base from Sydney?), even Rudd's indomitable personal popularity seemed to be fading. He ended Labor's six years in office a diminished figure.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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